5 Greatest Heresies and How the Church Overcame Them

There is an unusual and rare service called The Triumph of Orthodoxy held only once a year, on the first Sunday of the Great Lent. During this service, the deacon lists main delusions and heresies and proclaims anathema to their followers because they distorted the faith and therefore cut themselves off from the Church. Immediately after that, the deacon proclaims memory eternal to all right-believing rulers and those who made substantial contributions to spreading the Orthodox faith. What were those heresies and why were they dangerous for the salvation of the soul? How did the Orthodox Church manage to get rid of them?

1. Arianism

This doctrine was first brought up by a priest from Alexandria by the name of Arius (who died in 336). His main idea was that the Son of God, the Logos of the Father and His Wisdom is not equal to God the Father. Instead of being God, he is merely a creature made out of the void like the rest of the world. Arius taught that the Father wasn’t always the Father: He became the Father after the creation of the Son, so there was a time when the Son hadn’t existed. Currently, the Arian teaching of the createdness of the Son of God and the rejection of his Divinity is shared by Jehovah’s Witnesses and all who believe that Jesus was just a talented preacher.

The Church received the Divine Revelation from our Lord and God Jesus Christ, so She has always believed in the Holy Trinity: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although they knew that Jesus was God from the start, it took a while for the Fathers of the Church to choose the right words and concepts to describe the precise relations of the Father and the Son and to explain how the Son could be equal to the Father. They had to convey the meaning of the Revelation as clearly as possible and at the same time to preserve the biblical monotheism and not to sound too polytheistic.

The key to the proper expression of the Divinely revealed Truth was the word ‘consubstantial’ (ὁμοούσιος). There is no such word in the Bible. It was taken from Greek philosophy. However, the Fathers of the Church weren’t afraid of writing this word on the banners of Orthodoxy, using philosophical categories of the antique, i. e., pagan wisdom. Three hundred and eighteen bishops gathered in Nicaea in 325 to condemn the Arian heresy and to formulate the Orthodox doctrine on the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, declaring that the Son is God and therefore possesses the same Divine nature that his Father; that there hadn’t been any time when the Son didn’t exist, for the Son is equally eternal and equal to the Father.

2. Nestorianism

The founder of this heresy was Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople who lived in the first half of the 5th century. According to Nestorius, Jesus isn’t just a God-man with two natures: the Divine and the human, but also contains two personalities: a human one born by Mary and the Divine one, born of God beyond all time. When Jesus Christ came into the world, it wasn’t Incarnation of the Word of God who took on human nature: it was a union between God as one Person and man as another person in the body of Jesus Christ during his baptism. Liturgically, their dogmatic error was reflected in calling the Most Holy Virgin Christotokos, not Theotokos. This abhorrent teaching was opposed by St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Third Ecumenical Council, which took place in Ephesus in 431. The Council approved the position of Saint Cyril because, according to the apostolic faith, Christ possesses both the Divine and the human natures while at the same time being one Person. This Person isn’t human but it is God the Word himself. The original Nestorian heresy isn’t believed by any religious group anymore. Nevertheless, there are occultists who consider Christ to be a mere human inspired by God.

3. Monophysitism

This heresy arose as a reaction to the Nestorian heresy but failed to remain Orthodox either. The originator of this heresy was Archimandrite Eutyches from Constantinople who began preaching that there was nothing left of human nature of Christ after the Incarnation: it was fused and incorporated into the Divine nature like a drop of honey in an ocean. This heresy denies that Jesus Christ was fully human, and therefore, it renders impossible the sanctification and theosis of our nature, which has to be identical to the human nature of Christ. The Orthodox Church response to this heresy was shaped by the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, which based its formula on an epistle of Saint Leo the Great, the Pope of Rome:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ… to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως – in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis)…”

The Eutychian heresy in its pure form is anathematized by all historical Churches, although the schism caused by the Monophysites remains unhealed up to now. Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Churches are not in communion with the Orthodox Church.

4. Monothelitism

It is a subtler variety of Monophysitism, which preserved the Orthodox teaching about two natures and one Subsistence but claimed that He had only one – the Divine – will. That system was artificially crafted in order to heal the Monophysite schism. This mistake spread to the entire Church but was vanquished thanks to the theological genius of a simple monk Maximus who proved via his writings that the teaching on two wills in Christ, viz., the will of the Divine nature and the will of the human nature that obeyed the former, was Orthodox. The Monothelite heresy was condemned by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Council in Rome in 649. For this, Pope Martin and St Maximus the Confessor were arrested, tortured, and exiled. The Monothelite heresy was brought to an end in 680 by the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

5. Iconoclasm

Lastly, the fifth major heresy is the denial of veneration of holy icons. It was after defeating this heresy that the Church established the commemoration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It must be noted that this heresy isn’t merely a denial of a pious practice: it is in fact a continuation of christological controversy. Was Jesus really so human that we can paint him? Did He remain human after his Ascension? Are icons depicting those events legit? Iconoclasts said no but the Orthodox replied yes – and proved that by spilling blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in 787, confirmed Orthodox practice of venerating holy icons, stressing that true worship belongs only to God. We should not worship holy icons; instead we should venerate them piously because they are consecrated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The honor we pay to the image is transferred to the Prototype. We don’t worship paint and wood; in fact, we worship the One portrayed on the piece of wood.

There have been quite a few heresies. Definitely, the fallen human nature, instigated by the enemy of the human race, is going to invent new misconceptions in the future. Notwithstanding this fact, an Orthodox Christian must firmly believe in the promise that Christ gave to Apostle Peter, and to the entire Church through him, I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

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  1. I gotta upvote #2 Mary is the human that God recognised as His Willing Vessel whereby to incarnate as Man. She gets the Nestorian Blessing of Sura #19. That is two separate natures in one Jesus human divine person, separate natures become reconciled thereafter in the mind of the human individual.

    YOUR WRONG # 5 what a slippery slope you encounter when saying that reverence to Icon is but a reflection or Portrait of That Whom You Reverence. How many of you actually feel desperately lost when looking at the portrait of some former hero. This is way too much self-aggrandisement. God does not need icon painters as much as he need electrician farmer and carpenter.

    1. Dear Steven,

      Thank you very much for your comments and for paying attention to our blog.
      Certainly, Mary is a human being, that God recognised as His Vessel and Ark of the Covenant and She is also venerated by the so called Nestorians, or better Assyrian Church of the East. However, we call Her the Theotokos, because Her child is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is both human and God. That is why Mary is Theotokos, not because She gave the birth to the Divine nature, it is impossible for humans beings, but because she gave the birth to Jesus whose Personality or better Hypostasis is Divine.

      Yes, I agree that God do not need in icons and whatever. He is perfect. However, we are those, who need the icons, because we are too wick. When we look at the icons , our heart becomes softer and the faith to God is strengthening. And that is very important and Jesus is happy, if I am permitted to say so. Also, when we look at the icons, we are not desperate, because we fill and know that Jesus is with us, his saints are with us, because we all are the parts of His Body, which is the Church and we know that we all are a big Christian Family. Why not having some photos or icons of your spiritual relatives? And another thing is that the icons are filled with grace of the Holy Spirit, because we ask Him to sanctify the icons. So, when we pray before the icons, when we venerate them ( not worship!) the grace of the Spirit touch our hearts and our bodies. Icons can be also the mission tool. The are thousands of people who convert to Christ through the admiring and reading about the icon of St. Andrew Rublew “The Holy Trinity”.

      So, the Icons are not necessary for praying, but they are very useful.

  2. An interesting article, but the Assyrian Church of the East denies being Nestorian (I think it is doubtful if even Nestorius himself was Nestorian) Certainly the standard 6th century Assyrian Christology of Babai the Great is firmly Chalcedonian.

    Similarly the Oriental Orthodox Church would deny being monophysite but rather miaphysite which is entirely different and a lot closer to the Chacedonian definition-indeed miaphysitism it seems to me is just looking at Chalcedon from a different angle-it seems the same picture but from another view.

    In Christ,


    1. Dear Paul,
      Thank you for your nice comment, I am totally agree with you. In fact, I prefer not to use such terms as Nestorians or Monophysites speaking about the Assyrian Church of the East and other Oriental Churches respectively. The words explaining the Mystery of Christ can be different in different Christian traditions, if the meaning remains the same.

    1. Maybe because this is too obvious. Everyone knows about this teaching.
      Or maybe the thing is that this heresy is not overcome, the Christian world is still divided.

      1. Thank you for your comment. Yes, this teaching is quite known among the Christians and is still under the debates. Even Orthodox theologians are divided in this question, one part and many Saints say that it is a heresy and others say that it is a theologoumenon, which actually does not contradict the Orthodoxy teaching if placed into the orthodox context.

    2. Dear James,

      Thank you for your comment. Filioque is out mostly because the article deals with the great heresies which were condemned before the 7th Ecumenical Council.

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